The general secretary of the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party, Le Kha Phieu, made his first trip to Cuba this month, a sign of strengthening ties between the two communist holdouts. Civil unrest in both countries is causing both Mr. Phieu and his Cuban counterpart, Fidel Castro, to rethink old formulas for suppression and-in some cases-even to loosen restraints on personal freedoms. Recent events in Vietnam, however, suggest Mr. Phieu and his government have a long way to go toward real change.
The discovery of a classified Vietnamese government document, which goes into great detail about how to suppress Christianity, surprised even stalwart church experts on persecution. The government is increasing pressure to eradicate Christianity, according to a report from World Evangelical Fellowship, in the face of large numbers of Christian conversions, especially among the tribal Hmong people. Church workers say that as many as 300,000 Hmong are now Christians. Fearing that evangelistic upheaval will undermine communist rule as it did in Eastern Europe 10 years ago, Vietnamese authorities have increased pressure to wipe out Christianity among Hmong.
In the document, authorities call the Hmong Christians followers of the "Religion of the Lord of Heaven." They say the new believers want to set up their own autonomous kingdom. The 42-page edict calls the Christians "bad people" who "follow religion illegally." It charges them with "propagandizing with deceptive beliefs." They, together with the foreigners who bring Christian teaching, "want us to listen to the Religion of the Lord of Heaven, which destroys our solidarity, and discards the good and beautiful customs of our minority peoples," the paper says.
In stark contrast to standard Marxist propaganda, the document promotes traditional Hmong animist beliefs and customs as an antidote to Christianity. Specifically, it encourages the Hmong to keep their family altars to ancestors and ancient burial customs. To become a Christian, the paper notes, is no longer to be Hmong.
The report concludes with a 10-point epigram that encourages villagers to unite against Christians and report on their activities to government officials.
According to the sources who provided the document to World Evangelical Fellowship, 4,000 copies of the lengthy pamphlet were published by the Communist Party's Ha Giang Province Propaganda Committee late last year. They were distributed with instructions for wide use by all political cells, local officials such as hamlet and village chiefs, citizen organizations, schools, and government offices. Local officials were ordered to translate the document into parochial languages. They were also ordered to keep track of the document's use and report to party officials on its distribution.
Dissemination of the material abroad, and its translation into English, came on the heels of increasing international attention focused on the plight of Hmong Christians. Already, persecution of Hmong has been vicious enough to force an estimated 8,000-10,000 to flee ancestral lands in Vietnam's far north. Most have traveled 800 miles to the south central highlands in Dak Lak Province. There, their plight is compounded. Many have been rounded up as "illegal migrants," as opposed to the "illegal religion" charges they faced in the north.
International attention has also focused in recent months on Tran Dinh Ai, a Vietnamese evangelist and teacher who was arrested in a Hanoi hotel in May and held for one month. During interrogation, Mr. Ai (who is also known as Paul Ai) collapsed and had to be carried to his room by guards.
Mr. Ai was arrested along with 19 leaders of the Vietnamese Assemblies of God church during a three-day training seminar in a Hanoi hotel on May 7. Mr. Ai said he was leading the pastors, from churches in the northern Hmong-dominated districts, on the responsibilities of life as a follower of Christ when police interrupted the session and accused them of practicing religion without permission. They were jailed and interrogated.
Other leaders were released two days later, but Mr. Ai remained in custody. He was admitted to a hospital with a high fever after two weeks of continuous questioning, then returned to "hotel arrest" with four guards until his release in June. Mr. Ai said international pressure ultimately led to his release. He was forced to pay a fine of 1 million dong ($73) for involvement in an illegal religious gathering and for possession of forbidden religious materials. No Bibles or other Christian materials belonging to Mr. Ai and the other pastors were returned. Mr. Ai received back his laptop computer-with a completely blank hard disk.
Stripped of his ability to continue public evangelism, Mr. Ai, his wife, and five children will most likely try to emigrate.
Confrontations with Christians have not kept Hanoi from putting on a good face concerning religious freedom. Earlier this year authorities revised an 8-year old decree on religious activities. Its first article states, "Discrimination based on beliefs and religion is prohibited." However, Article 5 of the decree promises that any act "which destroys the unity of the people, which harms the sound cultural base of the nation, and superstitious activities will all be dealt with according to the law." Authorities cite Article 5 in punishing Christian believers. The law also allows for "troublemakers" to be held by local officials for up to two years without trial.
Evangelicals are not the only ones to face persecution. Vietnam has the largest Roman Catholic population in Asia, 7 million, outside the Philippines. Most are free to attend Mass and celebrate festivals, but, according to Vietnam expert and author Robert Templer, the church itself remains under some of the toughest restrictions imposed by any country. Church property is controlled by the state; candidates for seminaries are vetted to ensure their allegiance to the Communist Party; and all appointments by the church must be approved in Hanoi. Officials have even expelled nuns from Mother Teresa's Sisters of Charity.
Despite an official hand-slap from the United Nations earlier this year, which condemned restrictions on religious activity in a report on Vietnam, communist control over churches continues. "The party is mostly unconcerned by individual faith ... but they are very fearful of any organized religion," said Mr. Templer. Claims to religious freedom, he said, are "a complete lie."